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More Clinton "Message Testing"

Topics: Push "Polls"

Yesterday, the Iowa Independent news website ran a story about a Democrat from Iowa city who says he participated in a long political survey that tested reactions to positive statements about Hillary Clinton and negative statements about John Edwards' "$400 haircut" and Barack Obama's votes "to fund" the Iraq war. Politico's Ben Smith linked to that story, as well as a recent DailyKos diary about a similar call received by a New Hampshire Democrat that mentioned the recent unflattering article about Edwards in the New York Times Magazine. TPMCafe's Greg Sargent located another respondent from Iowa and noted that all three said the call came from a firm called "PSA Interviewing," the telephone call center of the firm of Clinton Pollster, Mark Penn.

This is not the first such story to involve surveys testing negative messages about Clinton's opponents originating from "PSA Interviewing." Similar reports a few months made it into the profile of Penn by The Nation's Ari Berman Melber, including a response from Penn that "the charges were false and that ‘this firm conducts standard political and market research polls...and does not do push polling.'"

Two reactions:

1) No, Ana, and no, Taegan, it is not a "push poll." TPMCafe commenter "slcathena" gets it exactly right:

It's not a push poll. It's just this side of a fine line between message testing, and a push poll, but it's not a push poll. Now, were it a 30 second to 1 minute call with just negatives, going to tens of thousands of people (ie, not a standard 300-1000 sample size) THAT would be a push poll.

Remember, a "push poll" is not a poll at all but an effort to communicate a message under the guise of legitimate research (more here and here). And let's give due credit to Greg Sargent, Ben Smith and the Iowa Independent's Chase Martyn for avoiding the "push poll" label altogether.

2) Even if only "message testing," the story does not end there. Pollsters still have an ethical obligation to tell the truth to respondents, and this incident raises some interesting questions about whether campaigns should be willing to take ownership of the messages they allow pollsters to test.

In this case, no one seems to be questioning the truthfulness of the messages tested (although we have not seen the verbatim text). What seems more at issue is whether these sorts of negative attacks are appropriate, even if technically true.

Consider the context: Message testing" is ubiquitous in campaigns. Virtually every campaign that hires a pollster will conduct surveys that test messages, and most will test negative messages about their opponents. In my career as a campaign pollster, I wrote hundreds of surveys that did exactly that. And I can testify that campaigns frequently test messages they opt out of using in the campaign. At this stage, they are keeping all options open. Campaigns also consider the benchmark message testing survey one of the most closely held documents in the campaign and are hugely reluctant to discussing details with reporters.

What I find fascinating is the way the Internet is forcing a change in that culture. Ten or twenty years ago, if a voter participated in a "message testing" poll, they might have the same angry reaction as the respondents quoted in the stories above. They might mention their experience to a friend or colleague, but few bothered to call a reporter. Now, however, if you call 600 or 1000 voters, the odds are good that a handful will know how to leave a comment on a blog, and rather than ask friends or family, they will turn to thousands of readers of, say, DailyKos and ask, "what the heck was that?" And given the nature of the blogosphere, one comment will beget another, and these various testimonials will quickly get into the hands of political reporters.

All too often in the not so distant past, campaign consultants operated under the illusion that they could test the "family jewels" of a campaign in secrecy. Now, the reality is that if you put it on a questionnaire, especially in the context of a high profile campaign, it stands a good chance of being discussed somewhere on the Internet and found out by the political press. As such, campaigns will need to reconsider their willingness to take responsibility for the messages they test.

Last year, I argued that message testing polls "deserve the same level of scrutiny as any charge or statement made in the political realm." I think that works in both directions. We ought not holler "push poll" whenever someone tests a negative message on a legitimate survey, implying that the research is somehow more ethically questionable than running the same message in a television add. Similarly, we ought not exempt the testing of those messages from criticism simply because it is research.

In my last few years as a campaign pollster, I tried to give my clients the same advice: Don't put anything in a message testing questionnaire that you are not willing to publicly defend. If the Clinton campaign is willing to test the negative messages alleged above, they ought to be willing to take ownership of those messages and the tactics they imply. If not, then we are all left to draw our own conclusions.

Update: Politico's Ben Smith has much more.

 

Comments
Jane:

There is another possible motivation for testing the negative attacks the 'Publican Party has been using.

At some point, all of these candidates hope to be in the position of choosing a running mate. To get one who can help your election chances, you need to know how sticky the 'Publican Party mud is.

Dean's scream is a non-issue when the crowd noise he was trying to be heard over is restored. The context for the haircut is not that Edwards routinely gets $400 but that he spent that type of money to bring his hair cutter to him to keep the same image.

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Gene Sidore:

I just had a call from someone whose accent was difficult to understand who identified himself as polling for "PSA". Towards the end of the call, after I had identified myself as choosing between Obama and Edwards, he fed me a few statements about Hillary and then asked my preference again to see if I had changed -- and this after I had said there was "no way" I was going to vote in the primary for Hillary.

In my opinion it was a push poll, but a gentle one. Since I am in the middle of internalizing my reactions to attending an Obama appearance last night and an Edwards one the night before -- and since I will have to mail in my absentee ballot before the Iowa caucuses -- I found it useful to put up with the obvious manipulation, which was gentle, to see if I could come up with a decision. But it was a push poll, and I found the fact that the Clinton campaign was apparently using such tactics a cause for concern.

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j:

obviously a push poll; re-enforced by when they called me today, refusing to answer for whom they are working. not good for hillary any way you slice it.

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you are winning election,madame.

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